Top Ten Ways to be an Extreme Green: babies, the environment, and human waste

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Lately it seems like I’ve come across a lot of moms who are concerned about environmental issues. I think a lot of people start to think about these concerns for the first time when they have children. Partly, of course, it’s because you start to really think about what the earth will be like for future generations when those future generations have a face. But I think it’s also because moms have to deal with environmental issues more than most people. Moms need convenience. They buy food in kid-sized servings with lots of packaging; they are constantly tempted by more plastic toys; and, of course, they deal with the diaper problem. And so my second way to be an extreme green is geared for moms: it’s the extreme environmentalist answer to the great diaper debate.

My biggest environmental concern when I was pregnant was, without a doubt, the diaper question. I searched endlessly for an answer to the debate of cloth vs. disposable. No matter how many life-cycle studies I saw (most of them funded by Proctor and Gamble, who owns Pampers) claiming that “compostable” disposable diapers are actually better for the environment than cloth, I didn’t believe it. I just couldn’t bring myself to buy the argument that something that’s meant to be thrown away was better for the environment than something that could be endlessly reused. And besides, cloth is cheaper. But the idea of actually washing poopy diapers myself for the next three years was intimidating at best, and in the midst of Atlanta’s water crisis, I couldn’t help but wonder whether maybe disposables might be better in our situation, after all. And the studies did say that energy and water use is more efficient with a diaper service than with home washing–but there were no diapers services in Atlanta at the time I was pregnant. Believe me. I looked. (Now that I’m an accomplished cloth diapering mom who loves washing diapers, of course this has started up.)

And then one day, as I searched the internet, I came across a link about “diaper-free babies.” Diaper free? I was intrigued. I clicked, and soon I knew I’d found the answer. Like every riddle, the solution is obvious once you see it, but it requires a paradigm shift, an entirely new way of thinking about the problem.

As it turns out, “diaper free” is a bit of an exaggeration. According to Ingrid Bauer, the author of Diaper Free: The Gentle Wisdom of Natural Infant Hygiene, babies who are “diaper-free” from birth nevertheless continue to need backup at least until they’re around four or five months old. In countries where diapers are unavailable–which actually includes most of the world–that backup might be as simple as an extra layer of clothing, or a towel. For western moms, it’s usually a cloth diaper. But still. Compare that to the average American child, who’s wearing diapers full-time until the age of three.

At first, it seemed too good to be true. According to Bauer, you can learn to know when your baby needs to pee. When you think it’s time, you just take them to a toilet (or a bowl, or a bush, or any location you choose), hold them in a squatting position, and make a hissing sound, and they will quickly learn to recognize that as a cue for eliminating. Some people call it “elimination communication,” because it’s not really potty training at all, but rather a two-way process of communicating in which the parent learns to recognize the baby’s signals and the baby learns to understand the parent’s cues. Much like breastfeeding, in which the mom learns to recognize the baby’s signals for hunger, and the baby learns to latch on and suck. It makes so much sense, and yet it seemed so outrageous and difficult to me. I, after all, wore diapers till I was nearly four!

But, after reading extensively, I decided to try this strange practice. What, after all, did I have to lose? I got myself a stash of cloth diapers and a tiny washing machine and drying rack to use as back up, so I could wash diapers as efficiently as possible. And I figured that even if I only saved one or two diapers a day by trying to “catch pees” in the toilet, well, that was one less diaper to wash.

And after over a year of trying it full-time, I can say with confidence that “EC’ing” is every bit as easy as Bauer claimed. Yes, I have gotten peed on–but what mom hasn’t? Yes, I’ve gotten pee on my floor–but that would happen with potty training at any age, so not a question of whether, only of when. And I’ve also discovered that the benefits of this method go far beyond the environmental.

From as young as a month old, it became a rare oddity for my baby to poo in her diaper. At two months old, she was frequently staying dry for four or five hours at a time, and I could sometimes use as few as two or three diapers a day. Now at thirteen months, she frequently wears underwear at home and usually only pees in her diaper two or three times a day. Although things like teething and developmental milestones always cause a break in our success at staying dry, I’ve never had to wash diapers more than every two or three days–which is less often than most moms need to wash clothes. So the environmental benefits are obvious: I’m saving water, I’m saving trees, and I’m putting waste where it belongs. Now if only I had a composting toilet…

But the benefits, as I said, go far beyond that. It wasn’t until I gave birth that I realized how disconnected I’ve been, for most of my life, from my body. In our culture, bodily waste is something shameful and gross, something we avoid at all costs and think about as little as possible. But the reality is that our waste is part of a marvelous design. We eat food that grows from the land, and our bodies process the food, and what we don’t need comes out of our bodies and–ideally–goes back to the land. Becoming aware–or, in my baby’s case, simply staying aware–of this process is part of living in harmony with how we are created, and the world we were created in. It’s not for nothing that Genesis tells us we were formed from the dirt.

We’ve developed a version of Christianity that seeks to gloss over the material side of creation. But the most beautiful thing about Christianity–something that sets it apart, in my mind, from many other religions–is the fact that it doesn’t gloss over material things. Only in Christianity was God truly made man. We don’t often think about Jesus going to the bathroom. But surely there wasn’t anything “dirty” about His waste.

And, too, there is a spiritual discipline in learning to be so aware of my baby’s needs. Many spiritual fathers have spoken of the importance of being fully in the present moment as a spiritual discipline. And all parents know that the mere act of caring for a child, of serving them unselfishly, offers opportunities for spiritual growth. But being aware of when my baby needs to go to the bathroom requires a focus on the present that is unlike that required by any of my other tasks in caring for her. You can’t lose focus, even for a moment. You can never stop caring, never stop being aware.

And yet–as with all spiritual disciplines, it only sounds hard until you try it. It is hard, yes, especially in a culture where no one else is doing it. But changing poopy diapers isn’t exactly my idea of easy, either. And communicating with my baby is fun. Nobody ever fought with their partner for the chance to change a poopy diaper. But “peeing the baby” can be a thrill. Babysitters want to try it. Friends are intrigued. Family wants to watch, as though it’s some kind of party trick. And even though plenty of my friends think I’m crazy and extreme, the truth is that, as with every valuable discipline, the rewards of EC are much, much greater than the challenge it presents. I mention this practice in my list of ways to be an extreme green because in our culture, it is pretty extreme. But I wish it were normal. After a year of doing it, it feel like normal to me: I can’t imagine raising a baby any other way.

Extreme environmentalists might be crazy, says new york times

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So my favorite blogger, Sharon Astyk, was featured in a New York Times article on “extreme approaches to living a green life.” The article implies that people who go beyond recycling or using mass transit in their pursuit of a green lifestyle might be psychologically unhinged. Really.

I will admit there are some weird aspects of the lifestyles the article call “dark green,” at least as they’re described in the article. Why, for example, does Anita Levine scrub out and reuse ziplock bags–including ones that held dirty diapers–and yet use biodegradable instead of cloth diapers? (While she’s at it, she could buy a diaper wetbag to hold used diapers and then throw the whole thing in the laundry, bypassing the need for at least one plastic bag. But maybe that’s just me and my love for cloth diapers.) And David Chameides, who’s collecting a year’s worth of trash in his basement, might be a little crazy–but his stunt is no less strange than hundreds of other publicity stunts that we see all the time, and his blog is actually pretty interesting. And his most recent entry does a good job of negating the Times implication that these people are all crazy. “We all need to do the best we can,” he writes, but “an occasional slip doesn’t nullify everything else we are doing.”

I couldn’t agree more, and truthfully, I don’t know anyone who lives a “dark green” lifestyle who doesn’t realize that. Maybe there are people out there somewhere who “can’t have something in [their] house that isn’t green or organic” or “can’t eat at a relative’s house because they don’t serve organic food,” as the Times article warns against. If there are people like that, I’ve never met them, and frankly they clearly have psychological (or familial) issues that have nothing to do with wanting to live green. If it weren’t organic food, for them, it would be something else.

But I think the mockery of the Times article goes deeper than that. It’s easy to imagine the fullest extreme of something and then make fun of it. What’s scary is that the people whom the article interviewed really aren’t living in such an extreme way. They’re doing a lot more than I am, admittedly, and more than nearly everyone in western society. But compared to the world at large, or the way most humans have lived throughout history, they’re not strange at all. They don’t use refrigerators? They hang their clothes to dry? They even–gasp!–grow some of their own food? You mean food doesn’t grow on supermarket shelves?

Seriously, these are not strange activities. Growing food (in the ground), doing most work by hand instead of having lots of machines that do it for you, and taking care of your own waste products has been normal for most of human history. It’s only in the last few hundred years that it’s become possible, much less normal, to do otherwise. What’s frightening to me is that now our culture has become so used to it that we view things like dryers and refrigerators not as labor-saving devices but as essentials for survival. We don’t just think we need these things; we can’t imagine living without them.

But the reality is that we can’t live with them forever. It’s possible that we might even have to live without them in our lifetimes. People who are already making do without them aren’t crazy, and they aren’t rejecting all human progress. In point of fact, they’re ahead of the curve.

Self-denial and sacrifice have always been valued in Christian thought. It’s good for our souls to live with less. It’s even better for our souls if our living with less can also enable those worse off than us to live with more. “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen,” writes the prophet Isaiah, “to share your food with the hungry?” (58:6-7) It’s good to fast; it’s better to fast so that someone else can eat. By using less energy, these “dark green” people are leaving more for others. That’s not crazy at all. It’s just Christian.

President obama

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Like many Americans, I was up late last night. I’ve been watching this election with all the excitement I usually devote to my favorite television dramas. I’ve seen every debate, many of the speeches, and absolutely every Tina Fey skit. After two emotional years of following this campaign, last night felt to me like the climax of a really long movie. Cue music and credits as the audience gets teary-eyed and slowly files out of the theater, back into the real world.

But, of course, last night wasn’t the end. It was the beginning. As Obama said so powerfully in his speech last night, “This is not the change we seek. This is only the opportunity to make that change.” I know a lot of my friends didn’t vote for Obama, and a lot of people are scared about what his administration will mean for this country. I’m not one of them. I voted for him–in the primaries as well as the general–and I’ve never been so excited about a candidate in my life.

And although there are plenty of historic and social reasons to be excited about President Obama, my reasons are, I think, a little different than most. It’s not because he’s the first African-American president our country has ever elected, although I am happy about what that says about the slow eradication of racism in America. And it’s not because he’s a young, inspiring speaker who’s fun to listen to, although I do look forward to actually listening to the entire inaugural address for the first time ever. Nor is it because of his strong energy and environmental plans, although those were my original reasons to vote for him.

No, today I am excited about a president Obama because it seems to me he has run a campaign entirely different from anything we’ve seen before in this country, and I believe he has the potential to restore the practicality of democracy in America. Rich Mullins once said that democracy was a great idea, an experiment he was happy to be part of. I’ve always thought that I would feel the same way if I really thought I was part of it. Truthfully, even though I’ve cared about political issues for a long time, I’ve never thought that America really worked as a democracy. Democracy, to me, means that everyone participates–everyone has a say in the laws, the issues, the day-to-day reality of governmental decisions. Democracy is supposed to be a government by the people; it’s supposed to mean self-governance. And sorry, but two minutes of casting a ballot in a voting booth doesn’t count in my mind as governance. So for a long time, I’ve felt that the only true form of democracy is a small one–about the size of the Greek city-states that originally invented the idea. Democracies ought to be small enough that ordinary individuals can be part of the important decisions that affect everyone. And America is just too big to do that.

Or so I thought.

But now, Obama has changed my mind. In the world of the internet, America just might have shrunk small enough for us to build a real democracy. There was some controversy over Obama’s refusal to use public financing for his campaign, but it says something huge about him that his incredibly rich coffers were filled by ordinary people like you and me, and the average donation was a mere $80. Many of them were $5 and $10 donations, gifts from hundreds of thousands of people that added up to Obama’s amazing political machine. This is incredible to me because it speaks to the grassroots nature of his campaign: lots of people donating time and money and energy to make something happen together. And it wasn’t just the money. Obama had thousands of offices all over the country, in every state, staffed mostly by volunteers. People were making calls for his campaign from their own homes. I think more people volunteered for this campaign than have ever volunteered for a political campaign in this country. Obama has leveraged ordinary people all over America in a way that no presidential candidate ever has before.

And he was sometimes criticized for running a campaign that was all about him, calling for a change that ultimately amounted to nothing more than electing him. But last night, he made it clear that that was not his intention. When he reminded his supporters that this is not the change they’ve been working for, he also told them that they would still be needed.

So now I’m excited to see if it’s really possible for a president to truly stay connected to the people of this country at a grassroots level. Will a President Obama really be able to listen to ordinary people and their concerns? Will the volunteers who were so excited to elect him stay excited about enacting new policies for his administration? Will the families who were willing to sacrifice time and money now be willing to sacrifice convenience and ease in order to change our energy policy and protect our environment? Will the inspiration last?

For the first time in my life, I feel like I’m part of history. For the first time in my life, I feel like I am part of the great experiment of democracy. And, at the risk of sounding like Michelle Obama at her worst, last night I was prouder than I’ve ever been in my life to be an American.

Core problem in our thinking about energy decline

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My favorite blogger, Sharon Astyk, wrote yesterday about the core problem in our thinking about energy decline and transition. In a nutshell, it is this: we want big solutions, but we need small ones.

She references Al Gore’s recent editorial, where in the glow of Obama’s election he calls for sweeping energy reform: solar plants in the southwest, investments in hybrid cars, and a national carbon tax. Gore wants changes on a massive scale, changes in infrastructure and policy that will require huge investments up front. But what he doesn’t ask for–as Sharon points out–is investments on a small scale, simple actions on a human, individual level. We don’t think these things make a difference. But the truth is that they do.

And so Sharon brings the problem back to the one thing politicians and businessmen never want to mention, the one thing that everyone can and should do: conservation. America used to value conservation. Only a few generations ago, we prided ourselves on frugality and care: Waste not, want not, our grandparents said, and even my mother still washes and reuses plastic cups and baggies.

But my parents’ generation began to move away from that ideal: in trying to live “better” than their parents had, they gave up some of the conservation ideals of the Depression. And my generation, the “me generation,” children of the 80’s boom and beneficiaries of the trickle-down economy, we were raised with a mindset so far from frugality that we have come to see waste as a virtue. We believe that the best way to help others is by helping ourselves. Buy American. Spend your stimulus check. Vote with your dollars.

But if we want to ease our transition to a lower-energy world, it’s time we re-learn conservation. It’s time we abstain. One commentator on Astyk’s post suggests that we need better part-time jobs, so people can earn money and still have time to be at home, to care for children and to cook meals so those kinds of things don’t need to be outsourced. We need to move our personal economies closer to home: drive less, eat out less, grow food more, provide for our own needs more. We need to rely less on the system and more on ourselves and our neighbors.

And, contrary to common belief, we really don’t have to go back to the middle ages to do it. We might need to go back a generation or two for our best models–but there is a reason, after all, why that generation is remembered as the Greatest.

enviro expo usa

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Last weekend we got to go to Enviro Expo. Which was especially fun because my dad was kind of the one who started it. I ended up volunteering at the Sierra Club booth for a lot of the time, so I didn’t get to wander around and meet people as much as I would have liked, but I still had a great time. Here are some of the organizations I was most interested in that I discovered there:

The Living Green Pages. This is going to be launched soon. It’s an idea I’ve heard before, of basically combining every environmentally-friendly resource you need into one website. Great concept. We’ll see if it comes together.

The Greening Youth Foundation. This is a new program that goes into schools and teaches an eight-week environmental education program. I was particularly interested in this because right now they’re only in elementary schools, but long-term they’d like to expand into middle and high schools. I told them I’d be very interested in helping with that…

Eco Clean Atlanta. I was just thinking the other day that this ought to exist. Turns out it does. It’s an ecologically-friendly cleaning service. I’m not in the market for a cleaning service right now, but if I ever am, I will definitely call them.

And my favorite: Career Eco. I’m not in the market for a job right now, but this kind of makes me wish I were. Eco careers, all on one website. Cool. The website doesn’t seem to be working right now, though.

What will save Marta?

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It’s a funny thing about Atlanta and the city limit. There are few cities in the world with so much urban sprawl, and no city I’ve ever lived in has such a vague distinction between inside and outside the city limits. It’s all highways and strip malls outside of the immediate downtown area, and for most people, cars are as indispensable inside the city as they are out in the suburbs. And yet, I’ve never lived in a city where people were so afraid to cross the city limit as they are here.

I admit, I’ve felt it myself. Somewhere out “OTP”–outside the perimeter–is a world I can scarcely venture into. It can’t be a fear of Walmarts or highways or billboards, because we have all those things here in the city too. It’s something I can’t explain. But the reality is that I hardly ever go outside the city limits.

And people who live in the suburbs are even worse. They think of “ITP”–inside the perimeter–as a haven of traffic, strangers, and crime. Especially crime. The fear is so ingrained that they’ll do everything possible to make it hard for people to get from inside the city out to the suburbs, even if it means disadvantages for themselves. Several suburbs (Marietta and Gwinnett, for starters) have voted more than once to refuse MARTA the right to extend rail lines out to them, even though it would make their commutes to the city much easier.

But I’ll pass by for a minute the issue of people’s fears of others who are different from them, or who live in a different kind of place than they do. It’s MARTA I want to talk about. After years of not being allowed to expand service, now MARTA might be forced to decrease service. This week the Georgia Legislature refused to pass a bill that would have allowed MARTA access to its capital reserves in order to tide over its current budget shortfall. Without that money, MARTA will have to make cutbacks, possibly decreasing service to six instead of seven days a week.

On the surface, it seems like an obvious issue: MARTA has money that will enable it to maintain its services, so shouldn’t it be allowed to use the money for that? But as the law currently stands, MARTA has to use some of its tax revenues for capital expenses, not operating expenses. And truthfully, that’s a good business model: they aren’t allowed to spend everything they have in the bank on day-to-day expenses. So the question really isn’t whether MARTA should be allowed to use its own money, but whether MARTA’s current budget shortfall is a blip in the system or a long-term problem. Because if it’s a long-term problem, then they need to balance their budget first.

A lot of people have problems with the fact that MARTA receives public funds. Personally, I think they ought to receive a lot more–public transit is the best investment we can possibly make in the environment and in preparation for peak oil, so why wouldn’t we invest public money in that?–but it would still be better if MARTA could make up at least some of the shortfall in the way that any business ought to: with business revenue. And the real problem with MARTA’s business revenue is that many people simply aren’t willing to ride on it. It’s not that they hate public transit, necessarily. It’s that they hate and fear the people who ride public transit.

Which means that MARTA’s problems are as much social as they are financial.

So what should MARTA do about it? Obviously, it’s not the responsibility of a public transit system to break down social barriers that prevent people from riding their system (although breaking down those social barriers is usually a nice side benefit of public transit). But there are ways MARTA could try to bypass the resistance. Some companies have started commuter busses that come in from the suburbs to MARTA stops and business locations; should MARTA consider adding a separate, more plush bus line or train line for commuters? Should they raise their prices in hopes of raising the average social class of riders? Or should they simply keep pushing for more tax money?

How would you fix MARTA’s problems?

Carnival of the green #158

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My turn has at last come to host Treehugger’s famous Carnival of the Green. If you’re not familiar with COTG, it’s a weekly roundup of posts on green and ecological topics from bloggers all over the world. So, without further ado, here’s this week in the environmental blogosphere:

First, naturally, we have a lot of holiday tips. From Christmas lights to wrapping paper to plastic toys, Christmas offers a wide range of temptations to destroy your ecological footprint. Fortunately, there are plenty of bloggers out there telling us how to enjoy Christmas without ruining our green-ness. RecycleCindy of My Recycled Bags tells us how to avoid wasteful wrapping paper by crafting our own Christmas gift bags from recycled plastic bags. The Digerati Life gives us ways to trim energy costs at Christmas. Brighter Planet offers tips on how to save money and reduce carbon emissions during the holidays. And Sallie Kneidel of Veggie Revolution offers general tips for a green and energy-efficient holiday.

Holidays are all about family, and there are several posts this week for ecological families. Chris Baskind at Lighter Footstep gives advice on planning a family meeting to help green your family footprint, and Clara Myers offers ways to create a non-toxic green nursery for infants. And for those who don’t have children but work with them, Mariah of Gardenaut lists upcoming grants available for youth and community gardens. I’m sending this post to my neighbor, who runs a private school with a community garden. I’m sure they could make good use of a grant.

On the ever-useful topic of recycling, Jim of Bargaineering lists reasons to recycle. And Leila at Everyday Trash tells us some of her favorite uses for recycled elephant dung. Yes, you read that right. Elephant dung. That’s for all that excess elephant dung you have sitting around. For those of you with elephant pets, or those who live next to your neighborhood zoo.

Also in the category of strange and unusual submissions, Jose of EcoJoes discovered a Buddhist temple made entirely of recycled glass bottles. Over a million of them. I would love to visit this place. And I would love to see a church like this. Heck, I’d love to build a house like this. I wonder how well glass functions as an insulator?

But my absolute favorite post this week comes from Lisa of Condo Blues. She tells us what green gifts not to buy for Christmas in her post, Green Gifts that Suck. What does it say about me that some of these are on my wish list for Christmas? And some of the others are things I was planning on getting for others (till this post set me right)? Maybe I am a Greenzilla after all!

And there you have it–this week in the green blogosphere. Next week’s Carnival will be hosted by Lighter Footstep. Till then, have a green Christmas.